Summer: Mulberries

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Who:

Mulberries: white mulberry, red mulberry, black mulberry

(Note that ‘red,’ ‘white’’ and ‘black’ do not describe the colors of the berries, which is incredibly confusing. Red and black mulberries both produce purple-black fruits, while white mulberries may ripen to red, purple, or white — but white fruits are the least common. All three can potentially hybridize.)

Morus spp., primarily M. alba, M. rubra, sometimes M. nigra

Moraceae family

What:

Nearly identical species: one native, one invasive, still others accidentally introduced or intentionally cultivated. All producing delicious edible berries and leaves for creatures of all shapes and sizes.

Truly white berries are not very common, and will often be rather bland unless tinted pink or purple.

Truly white berries are not very common, and will often be rather bland unless tinted pink or purple.

Where:

Most of us are far more likely to encounter the weedy exotic Morus alba (white mulberry) from Asia than our North American native M. rubra (red mulberry), and where they differ in their habitat preference is where it’s easiest to distinguish between the two.

Red mulberry is an uncommon understory tree that requires ample shade.

White mulberry, on the other hand, is intolerant of shade but thrives on edges, whether woodland edges, fences, or hedgerows.

Throughout urban and suburban North America, white mulberries are commonly found growing out of marginal sidewalk strips, tangled up in chain-link fences, and reaching out from the edges of city parks. In rural America it is one of the quintessential woody weeds of farm fences.

When:

Mulberries fruit in June and July across most of their range. Berries are fully ripe when they readily fall from the branch without plucking.

Leaves may be gathered at any time but are best when still young and tender early in the season.

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Why:

Mulberries — no matter which species we’re talking about — are a highly abundant and sorely underutilized resource in North America. The average American who even knows what a mulberry is in this era will most likely complain about how its berries discolor her driveway or the hood of her car, and has probably never considered eating them!

They have an especially long history of intentional cultivation with humans, and both the fruits and leaves are incredible food resources for people, wildlife, and livestock alike.

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How:

Taste several ripe berries from any given tree before harvesting, because the flavor can vary from “one of the best fruits on Earth” to “mushy, seedy water.”

The simplest way to harvest is to lay a tarp or two down at the base of the tree and gently shake the branches or trunk, dropping all of the ripest berries to the ground where you can gather them up quickly and sort now or later.

Ripe mulberries are extremely fragile and perishable, so handle them gently and don’t expect to be able to gather them in bulk without smashing them up quite a bit.

In the kitchen, try using mulberries anywhere you might use blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries. Since they lack the tartness of comparable berries, you may want to blend them with any of the aforementioned when making jams and jellies.

If you end up with a large quantity of berries with only decent flavor, consider making them into a wine. The final result can be quite rich and complex, not unlike a European dessert wine.

Mulberries are preserved most easily by freezing. 

Key characteristics:

  • deciduous tree with prolific blackberry-like fruits which may be purple-black, red, or white/slightly translucent

  • often displays a sprawling branching habit when growing wild on woodland edges, fences, and hedge rows.

  • simple leaves with toothed margins which may be oval-shaped, mitten-shaped, or three-lobed

Lookalikes:

The only berry that resembles a mulberry is a blackberry, but blackberries grow in thickets of thorny canes, not on trees, and are present much later in the season.

SamComment